A Brief History of Christmas Songs

It's still more than a week until Christmas, so I think I can safely venture another post on seasonal music. This time, we turn our attention to that staple of Christmas season - the carol.

It comes as a surprise to many that, with a few exceptions, the staples of carol services up and down the land have not been handed down since ancient times - indeed many or most of our best-loved songs are at most two hundred years ago.

The earliest Christmas songs are Latin, and, naturally, religious. Jesus refulsit omnium (Jesus illuminates all), composed by St. Hilary of Poitiers and Corde natus ex Parentis (of the Father's love begotten) by the Roman poet Prudentius are very early examples of hymns celebrating advent themes.

A carol, by contrast to a hymn, is, literally, a sung accompaniment to a circle dance. In the middle ages, carols were effective dance songs, which became adapted to celebrate festivals, processionally, or to illustrate mystery plays. It is from this tradition that our 'christmas' carols derive.

The two earliest "carols" finding their origin in the time of this dance tradition are The First Noel being thirteenth century, and O Come O Come Emmanuel deriving from the twelfth century.

Perhaps less well-known, in the UK, is The Friendly Beasts, which celebrate the gathering of the animals around the baby Jesus, at the nativity. A similar theme is explored in the 13th century Frech Entre le bœuf et l'âne gris.

The German/Latin carol In Dulci Jubilo also dates from the middle ages - this later used by, amongst others, Johann Sebastian Bach

We have the reformation to thank for the next batch of songs. With the reformation came the desire to vernacularise not only liturgy, and biblical texts, but also the music of the catholic church. Songs from Latin were translated into German, French, or English.

Alongside this trend came the emergence of folk-carols - literally music of the people - rather than sacred music.

From this period we have The Twelve Days of Christmas, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and O Christmas Tree, while We wish you a merry Christmas and Wassail Song both derive from 16th century England.

The 18th century saw the Christmas carol grow in popularity, and again a number of popular favourites come from this time, for example O Come All Ye Faithful (translated from Adeste Fideles), Angels we have Heard on High (from French), and Hark The Herald Angels Sing.

George Friedrich Handel is credited with While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks By Night, and, arguably incorrectly, with Joy to World which is actually by Lowell Mason, drawing upon themes from Handel's Messiah.

Christmas as we know it in the UK owes much of its tradition from the incorporation of Yuletide celebrations from Germany, thanks to the marriage of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in 1840.

The Victorian period provides a rich vein for carols, both original creations, and augmentation and translations. Silent Night (from the German Stille Nacht), It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Good King Wencleslas, We Three Kings, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Away in a Manger, and even, amazingly, Jingle Bells (originally a Thanksgiving song) come from the mid-late 19th century.

1871 is a key date, as this was the year in which Stainer's collection "Christmas Carols Old and New" was published, making many new songs available, many of his own arranging.

I find it interesting that so many songs we sing each year come from such a narrow time period - socially and musically. I can think of only one common hymn from the Edwardian period - Go Tell it on the Mountain.

It wasn't until the 1950s, and the rise of electronic entertainment that a resurgence in Christmas songs occurred, especially in the USA. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Winter Wonderland, Here Comes Santa Claus, and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer came to use via the wireless, or television.

Crooners of this period were responsible for the popularisation of many of these songs - sometimes perhaps their appeal explained by the popularity of the singer rather than the musical credentials of the song itself. Judy Garland brought us Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, while Bing Crosby is celebrated for his rendition of White Christmas, from the 1942 film Holiday Inn, and the 1943 I'll be home for Christmas. While this rather poignantly of the soldiers wishing to return home to their families, we also have jolly/silly songs from this period too - All I want for Christmas is my two Front Teeth, and I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus being two examples.

In the UK, these US-born songs continued to be staples, bringing us up to the late 20th century, and the rise of the Christmas pop song, with which I won't sully myself on this occasion.

So, as you join in festive carols this year, cast your mind back over time - render thanks to Stainer, and Prince Albert for the gift of Victorian Christmas, and to the reformers for their popularisation of sacred texts, and sing lustily and with good courage!

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